Month: September 1999

Trouble and her Friends, Melissa Scott

Tor, 1994, 379 pages, C$31.95 hc, ISBN 0-312-85733-0

Has it already been five years since the end of cyberpunk? Even though only half a decade passed between the release of Trouble and her Friends and me reading it, this novel seems much more dated than even works from the eighties.

The plot is unmistakably cyberpunk as we know it: A hacker retires after the adoption of some stringent anti-hacking laws, leaving her lover as easily as she leaves her old job. A few years later, another hacker steals her name (“Trouble”) and attracts unhealthy attention from authorities, who think it’s the old Trouble who’s doing the jobs. Now Trouble must ally herself with her old lover in order to catch the hacker who stole her name…

Beyond the “closing off the wild west” atmosphere, there’s not much new or innovative here. (Any SF novel blurb beginning triumphantly by “In less than a hundred years from now” is hopelessly naive) Compounding the problem of staleness is that Scott is content with recycling the cyberpunk clichés without modification. Of course, the weather is screwed up. Of course, cyberspace is a three-dimensional virtual area filled with colorful shapes. Of course the best hackers plug themselves in the matrix with a direct neural interface. Of course, the big corporations are evil and scheme against governments. Or course… Trouble and her Friends has fewer relevance to the real-world than to the cyberpunk universe first defined by Gibson and his acolytes. Unfortunately, most readers have been there before to see the same things.

No doubt that fans of the book will herald Scott’s usage of lesbian protagonists as “fresh and innovative”, but is it, really? Sexual definition was a staple of cyberpunk (with the real/online identity dichotomy) well before Trouble and her Friends. And the original cyberpunks had at least more subtlety than to underline their characters with heavy-handed “Boo-hoo, we’re gays and everyone hates us” gloom. (Missing the point that in cyberpunk novels everyone hates each other.)

Scott also mixes feminism in her ideological viewpoint… which would have been fine if she hadn’t also underlined the idea with big honking “SEXUAL DISCRIMINATION!” authorial messages everywhere in the text. Generally, I find progressive messages more efficient when presented in a matter-of-fact fashion, not the strident “We’re persecuted! You’re Nazis!” wailing tone of Trouble and her Friends. Scott tries to have it both ways by presenting a far-away future with yesterday’s prejudices.

Said far-away (late twenty-first century) future become even more ridiculous when the technologies used are already so primitive compared to what we’re anticipating for the next decade. Obviously, Scott is more interested in relationship issues than coherent extrapolation.

Which would have actually been fine if it hadn’t dragged down the narrative by at least two hundred extra pages. For its length, not a lot happens in Trouble and her Friends. It takes a long time for the novel to get moving, and sagacious readers will find themselves skimming over the reams of monotonous prose that’s simply not worth the trouble: Scott ain’t Gibson and this is a wannabee net-novel with your grandma’s writing style on Prozac.

Still, even despite the unsubtle sexual politics, dated future, unoriginal extrapolation and stuffy prose, Trouble and her Friends isn’t all that bad. Readers of the genre will recognize the place: Kind of a lesbian SF Harlequin. With appropriate skimming, a fun read for a rainy Saturday afternoon.

Bloom, Wil McCarthy

Del Rey, 1998, 310 pages, C$24.00 hc, ISBN 0-345-40857-8

Many Science Fiction authors are said to be heir to the grandmasters of the field. People are constantly trying to find “the Next Heinlein”, with the mantle passing from author to author, stopping by such choices as Spider Robinson, John Varley and John Barnes. Wil McCarthy hasn’t widely been recognized as the successor of any Grandmaster, but with Bloom, he evokes fond memories of Arthur C. Clarke’s best travelogues.

Indeed, Bloom begins on Ganymede, an orbit away from Imperial Earth‘s Titan. But where Clarke traveled through a solar system dominated by humans, McCarthy has a much weirder -and dangerous- future in mind.

By design or accident, some nano-critter (“mycora”) has managed to eat Earth in classic gray goo fashion. A small fraction of the human population managed to escape on the moon, and then farther out beyond the asteroid belt when it became obvious that mycora was also taking over the entire inner system. So Bloom opens on a solar system whose inner planets are all inhospitable and where humans are holed up here and there in the outer planets. Still, there are occasional incursions of mycora in the human settlements. There much be fought decisively, or else the bloom replicates until it destroys the habitat.

In the middle of all this, high authorities decide that mycora has to be studied, so they send a starship in the inner system, ostensibly to drop off sensors. Our viewpoint character is John Strasheim, part-time journalist and full-time shoe manufacturer. He’s not the only one to ask himself what he’s doing with the spacemen and scientists making up the remainder of the crew. As they set out for their trip to the inner system, -battling the constant threat of spaceship bloom- the question of whether they can all be trusted is raised, and then precipitated.

The atmosphere of constant paranoia -both external and internal- is part of what makes Bloom so special. The constant threat of mycora when the expedition enters the inner space system is convincingly claustrophobic, creating a real sense of dread for the characters. All of this leads to a few efficient sequences of almost pure terror as all hope seems to be lost and the crew has to fight a seemingly invincible array of threats.

McCarthy sets up his world and his characters effectively, leading up to some interesting situations. The characterization is only adequate, however, as it does take some time to differentiate between the small cast of characters and even then they never really become fully realized. No matter; they’re still serviceable in the usual SF fashion.

There are a lot of cool gadgets in Bloom, (like the tickle implant and the fear dolls) and McCarthy is scientifically-literate, so the jargon sounds right. Though not exactly an ultra-hard-SF novel, Bloom does play according to the rules of the genre, and is more convincing because of it. It simply makes sense, even in the action scenes.

Better yet is the simple, direct and enjoyable prose style of the book. The viewpoint character is a part-time journalist used to writing for a layman audience, and the narrative reflects this superbly. Especially fascinating are the snippets of text sent by Stratheim, balancing humor and fear. (Or unsent; see Chapter 19) The book is compulsively readable… a civilian’s account of combat in deep territory, a Science-Fiction version of APOCALYPSE NOW.

But like APOCALYPSE NOW it’s a slight shame if the conclusion is so disappointing. It would have been interesting to see McCarthy do something more with this predictable finale. As it stands, it’s almost as if McCarthy shies away from really interesting revelations.

Still, Bloom is a pretty good SF novel. Fans of McCarthy won’t be disappointed by this, his best novel so far, and non-fans might take this opportunity to discover an interesting author. A worthwhile choice for a fun, quick, thoughtful and interesting read… just like the best Clarke novels. Definitely a 1998 core-SF essential.

Top Secret! (1984)

Top Secret! (1984)

(On VHS, September 1999) This film still plays very well, even on a third viewing: It’s no accident if it earns a spot on my Fav-100 list. A brilliant genre parody (as opposed to a movies parody) mixing together both Elvis and Spy films, Top Secret! remains fresh by deconstructing several standard cinematographic devices you never noticed before. Though some of the acting and the timing is a bit off, the laughs are well-paced and heartfelt. For a pseudo-musical comedy, the dance/song numbers are well-handled and very enjoyable. Recommended.

Stir Of Echoes (1999)

Stir Of Echoes (1999)

(In theaters, September 1999) Another one of these creepy films which work quite well in the theater, but make less and less sense as you think about it later. Numerous incidents end up having no further meaning (the buzzing red lights, the pregnancy, the deep voice), the characters ignore clues-by-four (like the bizarre skepticism of the wife after meeting the policeman), ominous elements are used as comic relief (thirst for orange juice), an overlong flashback borders on overkill, etc… Nevertheless, the plot builds up effectively and the result is a basically decent horror film. A shame that the conclusion had to be so conventionally predictable and that the supernatural elements doesn’t seem to follow their own rules. Not bad, but I’d be careful to consider it as being anything better than okay.

Labyrinth of Night, Allen Steele

Ace, 1992, 340 pages, C$5.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-441-46741-5

Some books are sold by their cover illustration.

I had been fascinated by Labyrinth of Night‘s cover art ever since I first saw it in a book collection of Bob Eggleton’s paintings. It shows, in warm reds and oranges, human astronauts peering over a Martian landscape complete with pyramids and human face sculpted into rock. Never mind that all that Cydonia stuff is silly beyond belief; the cover illustration was lovely.

Both halves of the novel begin after the initial awed look at Cydonia. Humans have investigated the site, and found an interior labyrinth of deadly puzzles. The last one isn’t about mathematics or physics, but about music… and so authorities draft one rebel musician to come investigate. While he isn’t too pleased to make the Earth/Mars trip, everyone else has bigger problems as things are heating up on Mars between the Russian and the American military forces.

This first part of the novel uses standard narrative segments intercut with pseudo-journalistic excerpts as Steele’s universe is introduced to the reader. This device disappears in the latter part of the book, which takes place two years later and could easily constitute a standalone novel by itself. Though Labyrinth of Night isn’t a fixup, it does feel like an expansion of an original novella. One could quibble with Steele’s unconvincing characterization of military personnel and his knee-jerk antigovernementalism, but the result is still decent hard-SF reading, and that is not something to be dismissed lightly.

Clarke Country, Space doesn’t have the benefit of an eye-popping cover, but holds up fairly well on its own. It was published before Labyrinth of Night and technically presents anterior events, though there is not direct link between the two novels. (Even so, a single line in Labyrinth of Night pretty much sums up the aftermath of Clarke County, Space though the event described doesn’t happen in the earlier novel.)

Clarke County is a space colony, comfortably hosting humanity’s first extraterrestrial community. Discounting the occasional Church of Elvis convention, things are going pretty well. But as it all too often happens with these space colonies, some think that independence would be a Really Good idea… So what do we expect to read? Another Independence-war-story in space, right?

Wrong! For all its setup, back cover blurb and front-cover slogan (“It’s a piece of the sky worth fighting for”), Clarke County, Space ends up being a novel about a mafia assassin pursuing his victim on a space colony, and the Navajo sheriff tracking down the killer. Unexpected, isn’t it? This novel reads a lot like the first part of Labyrinth of Night, a fast-paced prologue to something bigger. But as most Steele fans know, this shouldn’t be interpreted as a rejection; Clarke County, Space is a good read in its own right, with plenty of bigger throwaway pieces cheerfully handed out to the reader in the framing story.

As always, readers of Allen Steele novels can expect some fast-paced adventures, told in a clear and enjoyable prose. Both Clarke County, Space and Labyrinth of Night show very well the strengths (and weaknesses) of this underappreciated hard-SF practitioner.

Michael (1996)

Michael (1996)

(On VHS, September 1999) I’ll automatically recommend anything featuring the gorgeous Andie MacDowell, but that shouldn’t make me blind to the weaknesses of Michael. John Travolta may star as an angel having a good time on Earth, but what could have been an original comedy is reduced to inconsequent sight gags about a mildly wacky angel, with a romantic tag that seems tacked-on. The whole film is like that, oscillating between different things until it never knows where it should be. The country soundtrack doesn’t help. Still, Michael manages to score a few fun lines and some formulaic-but-sweet romantic moments. That’s probably good enough.

Mean Guns (1997)

Mean Guns (1997)

(On VHS, September 1999) Nifty premise, meandering execution. A hundred various criminals are locked inside a high-tech prison. The prize? The three survivors get ten million dollars. Buckets of guns and bullets rain down on the initial hundred, and the fun begins. What follows is, roughly, a non-stop firefight barely interrupted by some half-hearted character development. Think of The Killer, though without emotional content and without John Woo’s superb eye for pulse-pounding action sequences. A cheerfully subversive mambo soundtrack is bound to bring a grin to your lips. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the only cool or funny thing in the film, despite the darkly comic potential of the story. This film would have been a first-class classic in the hands of Woo or Robert Rodriguez. Christopher Lambert and Ice-T both shine in roles we completely expect them to play as they do. A pure B-movie worth a look on late-night TV.

Le Dîner de cons [The Dinner Game] (1998)

Le Dîner de cons [The Dinner Game] (1998)

(In theaters, September 1999) Wickedly funny French film, reasonably well-subtitled in English. The theatrical origins of the film are obvious from the one-set location and the superbly convoluted script that does miracles with simple elements. Wildly unpredictable, interestingly directed and well-supported by the rather good acting. The ending is a bit of a letdown, as the film desperately tries to be nice and mean at the same time, with mixed results. Worth tracking down at your local video store.

Killing Time (1998)

Killing Time (1998)

(On VHS, September 1999) An interesting experiment. An Italian hitwoman (played by the beautiful Kendra Torgan) is hired to do a job in England. Due to complications, she’s forced to wait for her prey in a hotel room, literally “killing time” as various hoodlums try to murder her. The situation is made more difficult by the fact that she initially doesn’t speak a word of English. What would have been a terrific Nikita episode is stretched out to 89 looong minutes. The action sequences don’t really shine and the minimalist script is annoyingly contrived. Though the end result is still of some marginal interest (no doubt due to the strong screen presence of the lead actress), it’s simply too long and too indifferently directed to be enthused about.

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

(On VHS, September 1999) I was initially cautious about this film, and all the Academy Awards it received, which seems to relate a lot to external factors: Robin Williams was overdue for something (so he got the Supporting Actor nod) and Hollywood has the curious tendency to reward actors who write scripts (which would explain the Ben Affleck/Matt Damon win for Best Original Screenplay, though the script doctoring by William Golding is almost never mentioned) But that would be belittling the all-around pretty good film that is Good Will Hunting. It has a lot of heart, interesting characters and simply a good grasp of what is a satisfying story. The acting is uniformly good and the conclusion is suitably bittersweet.

The Evil Dead (1981)

The Evil Dead (1981)

(On VHS, September 1999) This obviously isn’t for everyone, with its ultra-low budget, shaky acting, primitive special effects, heavy-handed misogynism and over-the-top gore. For usual moviegoers, it oscillates between bore and gross-out. For horror fans, however, this film pretty much ranks up there with the greatest works of the genre. Though it’s not as sophisticated, funny or slick as its two latter sequels, The Evil Dead already exhibits Sam Raimi’s devilishly clever direction, darkly funny atmosphere and plain old fun of the follow-ups. Do yourself a favor: rent all three, invite a bunch of friends and have a grand good time.

(Second viewing, On DVD, August 2006) What one tends to forget in the shadow of this film’s sequels is that The Evil Dead series started out a pure cheap horror without much in terms of comedy. Neither is Bruce Campbell all that impressive in this first outing. (The familiar “Ash” persona would fully emerge only during the second film.) It, fortunately enough, still works relatively well today, but there isn’t much in there to keep audiences coming back. Coming out of nowhere, it’s still an impressive effort. As a prelude to what’s to come, well, it’s a bit bare-bones. The DVD contains an amusing audio commentary by the producers that sheds some light on the film’s ultra-low-budget origins.

Double Team (1997)

Double Team (1997)

(On VHS, September 1999) The unlikely pairing of Dennis Rodman and Jean-Claude van Damme would at first appear to be an exercise in cinematic awfulness critical mass. But Double Team ends up, strangely, as a curiously enjoyable piece of “guilty pleasure” B-cinema. Helping out is the effective direction of Hong Kong-expatriate Tsui Hark, who knows how to film an action scene. Otherwise, the script offers enough logical howlers and missing scenes to elicit gales of hilarity. Watch out for the deux-ex-Coke-machina ending! Not enough is done with Rodman’s character, but hey—at least he doesn’t embarrass himself.

Demolition Man (1993)

Demolition Man (1993)

(On TV, September 1999) So what is this film? As serious SF, it fails completely, never being able to convincingly explain its very framework. As satirical SF, it would have worked… in the fifties, and then again would have been re-written another time. (Though it does go through the motions of creating a different future.) As action, it’s almost a bore, given that we’ve seen all of it in other films, and more often than not, in other Sylvester Stallone films. As a comedy, it does have its moments, though those are dispersed between a mass of limp material. To the film’s credit, Stallone is okay and Sandra Bullock (“Lenina Huxley” is one of the few clever elements of the film) is adorable… but otherwise we’ll have to fall back on set design to say nice things about this movie. An acceptable divertimenti if you haven’t yet seen it, but otherwise not an essential.

A Good, Old-Fashioned Future, Bruce Sterling

Bantam Spectra, 1999, 279 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-553-57642-9

Readers already familiar with Bruce Sterling’s brand of Science-Fiction should smile at the misleading title of his latest short story collection. Because if Sterling is famous for something, it’s definitely not for writing “good, old-fashioned” futures.

One only has to take a look at his third novel, Schismatrix (1985) to see the first glimpses of a major talent at representing new and unsettling vistas. Schismatrix was a bold departure for hard-SF at the time, presenting a future that was eerie yet believable, but never too comfortable. His latter novels fulfilled this early promise, from the globe-spanning Island in the Net (1987) to the political satire of Distraction (1998). Sterling was heavily associated with cyberpunk in the eighties, but metastased in the “Wired” crowd during the nineties, constantly staying abreast of the latest trends and technologies.

A Good, Old-Fashioned Future is his third short story collection, and in some ways the best. Unlike Crystal Express, this collection represents Sterling working on his best playground, the globalized, info-rich, chaotic future of true tomorrow. Unlike other authors content to re-use standard SF devices to build up futures more related to past SF than present reality, Sterling is constantly original. The stories in this collection are usually sufficiently well-written to stay interesting all the way through, which wasn’t necessarily the case with his previous collections. Sterling’s narrative gifts are steadily improving, and with this collection he delivers a book that’s simultaneously interesting, colorful, literate and readable.

The Hugo-nominated “Maneki Neko” introduces Sterling’s techno-vision particularly well. Here, the net has given rise to a “gift economy” that is undemanding, yet particularly powerful. You might not think too much of doing “one small favor”, but the chain of events set in motion by a series of small coordinated event is irresistible. What if every stranger you met did you some small annoyance… wouldn’t that be an unbearable day? This story -possibly the strongest of the collection- is a good old crunchy SF idea wrapped in some of the best stylistic packaging you’ll find.

“Big Jelly”, a collaboration with Rudy Rucker, is less enjoyable, as if the sort-of-satire and the light subject matter somehow couldn’t be nailed down by the writing. It’s still enjoyable as a parody of infotech venture capitalism, but not much more. It ends in mid-story.

“The Littlest Jackal” is almost a present-day story in terms of technology, but it plays with new sociopolitical ideas and manages to be enjoyable despite its lack of cohesion. The ending is also a problem, but the story isn’t bad. Rumor has it that Sterling’s next novel will take place in this particular “universe”.

“Sacred Cow” is the weakest story of the volume, being neither particularly incisive nor innovative. Rambling and pointless but still readable, proving that even at his worst, Sterling still turns out worthwhile material.

The last three novella-length stories form a loose trilogy. “Deep Eddie” is about the adventures of an American courier in Europe, where he’s dragged into a curious conflict between intellectuals, a confrontation that quickly heats up and becomes very physical. “Bicycle Repairman” is about a mechanic who finds himself the target of a government agent when he comes into possession of a subversive television decoder. The last story of the volume is “Taklamakan”, an atmospheric -but curiously unsatisfying- trip inside a closed-off top-secret facility.

A Good Old-Fashioned Future delivers no less than four Hugo-nominated and two Hugo-winning stories (“Bicycle Repairman” and “Taklamakan”)… so there’s some quality to the mix. But the high price of the book coupled with the disappointing number of stories (Seven!) doesn’t make it a necessary buy. A good choice for Hugo completists and confirmed Sterling fans, but a library loan for everyone else.